- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The four playoff teams left in the Eastern Conference are putting nearly everyone to sleep, perhaps even themselves, judging by their noticeable lack of firepower.

The de facto preliminaries of the NBA playoffs qualify as a lead-in disaster for the high-quality fare of the Western Conference.

You need to be almost as resilient as the players to make it to the end of the night’s activities.

A good portion of America undoubtedly missed the worthy ending of Game3 between the Timberwolves and Kings Monday night. It was an affair that required an overtime session in Sacramento and buckets of coffee at home. There were lots of big shots and plays, twists and turns, and four-star performances from Kevin Garnett and Peja Stojakovic. The game ended about 1:30 in the morning on the East Coast, well past the bedtime of the 8-to-5 crowd.

The gulf between the East and West, as vast as ever, results in the junk being televised in prime time and the best stuff in the wee hours.

The NBA has been coping with the curse of the unbalanced conferences since Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls in 1998. These things are cyclic, it was said, only this has turned out to be one heck of an enduring cycle, and hurtful to the sport.

The teams representing Detroit and New Jersey, Indianapolis and Miami, hardly elicit much passion outside their respective precincts. They are seen, and rightly, as so much fodder for the elite teams in the West. If the Pacers are the class of the conference this season, it would be hard to envision them defeating any of the four remaining teams in the West in the NBA Finals.

Their league-best 61 victories in the regular season rates a giant asterisk, the product of a schedule that restricts teams from the East and West to two meetings each season, home and away. All too many of those meetings barely qualify as legitimate endeavors, given the effect a six-game, 10-day road trip has on a team.

Stick the Pacers out West this season and they might have been fortunate to hit the 50-win mark.

The modest television ratings confirm that you cannot fool the public with the pretenders of the East. Even the players concede it is a chore to watch.

“Ugly,” is how Ben Wallace described Game3 of the Pistons-Nets series. He could have been talking about all the games.

The Nets recorded a whopping 56 points in Game1, while the Pistons were only incrementally more efficient with 64 points in Game3.

The referees have come under criticism in the series, with the charge that they have inhibited the play of the Nets and Pistons. This is assuming the two teams are capable of playing high-level basketball on a consistent basis in the playoffs.

Just how egalitarian is the East?

The contingent from Miami is still in the playoff mix. This is a team that won 25 games last season, started this season on a seven-game losing streak and was an afterthought at the midway point with 16-25 record. A team can make what seems a remarkable turnaround in an instant in the East because of the dearth of frontcourt talent.

No team has flourished in the atmosphere of parity more than the Nets. They won 26 games in 2001 and advanced to their first of two appearances in the NBA Finals the following season. Their ascent hardly made for compelling drama in the NBA Finals, as their 2-8 record there attests.

An easy way around the dulling unevenness is to seed the 16 playoff teams en masse, regardless of conference affiliation. Yet the proposition is unlikely because of the coast-to-coast travel that would be necessary in the early rounds. Another remedy is to move up the starting times of the Western Conference playoff series, if only by an hour.

That does not resolve the East-West divide, but at least it might encourage a few more sleep-deprivation candidates from the East Coast to stick around.

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